When I was a young parent in the 90s, the concept of the Sandwich Generation was well established. People talking about this were in their 40s or early 50s, raising dependent children at home and supporting their aging parents (who mostly lived on their own). Fast forward many medical advances and economic ups and downs later, and we have a whole new kind of sandwich occurring – adult children are coming back home for economic or life-setback reasons, at the same time as elderly parents are living longer but frailer lives and require significant time and energy. We also have jobs, volunteer commitments and other demands on our time. We are stretched to the max, and any dreams of an adventurous retirement feel increasingly out of reach.
I am smack dab in the middle of this new generation of sandwiched generations. I wish I could think of a witty title for us, but “limp” or “wilted” lettuce felt like the most appropriate description!
Here are some tips that might help others traveling this road – some may not apply to your own situation yet, but you never know when they might prove useful:
- First of all, learn about finances so you can protect your own and your parents’ equity. Find a good financial planner – it’s never too early and your bank likely has someone you can talk to for free to start your education. Know the details of any insurance (including health insurance) your parents have available. Find out what tax credits and deductions might apply to your or your parents’ situation. Know where their money is invested, and make sure they have an up-to-date will. If you have a handle on the money side, you’ll feel more confident when you’re later faced with care-related decisions that could incur costs.
- If you don’t have Power of Attorney for your parent(s), consider talking with them about getting it. It makes money things much easier to manage later on. But do protect their dignity and don’t use it prematurely; instead, confer if possible. The same principle applies when thinking about a Representation Agreement for medical decisions. Hospitals and doctors are now capable of more nuanced conversations about a spectrum of medical interventions and end-of-life choices – it’s no longer a Resuscitate/Do Not Resuscitate binary). Learning more and having those conversations early with your parents is important to help you be a good Representative if and when needed.
- Share the work. There are others who have skills and care capacity in your world. Ask for help more – there are no gold stars for going it alone! In my family circle, it means that one sibling takes lead on the medical stuff, one of us deals with finances, and the one furthest away does tech support and ongoing video and phone contact. Even if you don’t have a supportive partner or siblings (I’m so lucky I do!) you still have people in your life who will gladly step up for you. And if you can be proactive in talking with your employer, let them know about the potential need for occasional and/or sudden time off.
- Watch out for gender bias at play – there are always exceptions, but most family caretaking and medical knowledge traditionally rests with women. Men in this and future generational sandwiches will be challenged to take on new roles and obligations in order to create a more gender neutral and positive model of family workload sharing. To the extent there are inequities of any kind, name them and ask for help to create a better solution. A wise coaching friend once told me “you can outsource love.” You personally do not have to provide all your parents’ care in order to feel like a loving child. It is just as loving to arrange for someone else to do some of it who has more time, energy, skills and/or experience. Stay calm if there’s initial resistance. If the helpers are experienced with seniors, they are inevitably going to win over even your most reluctant parent.
- Rebounding (or not-quite-left) adult children may come with both financial and emotional challenges, and it’s important that you not only get them connected with outside support and resources but also that you personally get help dealing with the pressures you feel. One of the issues I had to overcome was feeling I’d failed as a parent because a kid hadn’t permanently ‘launched’ by a certain age. It took some time in counselling to work through my outdated conceptions and understand that parenting really doesn’t end – and independence doesn’t suddenly kick in — at 18, 25 or any other number. There’s been a lot of economic and social upheaval since my cohort leapt out of home as fast as humanly possible, sped along by excess jobs and housing options. Life is a lot more complicated now.
- Don’t under-estimate the upside of having an adult kid home. There’s some real joy and burden-sharing that can come with the new roommate situation. Having done it several times now, I can say it’s a delight to see the contributions of adult children when they feel able to pitch in and help out. One of the essential ways to keep things harmonious is to talk about chores, errands, calendars and what’s expected of each person in the week ahead. If their mental state isn’t great, prioritize investing in their mental health as their first job and then add at least one or two contributions to the house as a whole. Small, consistent expectations harden into habits, which harden into life skills. And this time together is an opportunity for you all to learn new skills!
- Work on your own wellbeing, triggers and emotional regulation. Any cracks or unresolved issues get closer to the surface when you are exposed to more time with your family members. The best way to change anything is to change your own response patterns. I find that CBT and DBT (Cognitive and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy), meditation and reflective journaling make an ongoing difference. Exercise, dancing or a walk in nature – any movement, really – is scientifically proven to positively affect your outlook and mood. It doesn’t matter what you try or how many different things you try – just making time to put yourself first before others is the most important act. As my sister so perfectly put it: “You can get a bit lost if all of your goals are for others; setting a goal for yourself, working toward it and achieving it is enormously satisfying!”
- Lastly, and very importantly, you must celebrate every win, no matter how small. Always treasure progress over perfection – CELEBRATE!
Best wishes to everyone who is sandwiched in any way, and also to those dealing with even one other generation at a time. We are all in this together, and I’m sending you big supportive energy!
Please share any of your own suggestions or advice to others, and I will gladly include it in a postscript to this article. I can be reached at cnevin(a)courthouselibrary.ca
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not those of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.